IMBB-FORTH, the birthplace of modern Greek molecular biology research
The Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology of the Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas (IMBB-FORTH) was founded in 1983 by Fotis Kafatos in the island of Crete, the southeastern corner of Europe, best known as the home of the Minoan civilization that prospered from 3000 to 1000 B.C. IMBB’s main mission was to pursue cutting-edge research to better understand the basic principles of biological processes operating in living organisms and promote scientific excellence in the field of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. Despite its peripheral location, under the leadership of Dr Kafatos, the Institute quickly gained international visibility and recognition in Europe’s molecular biology community and was tagged as “a newcomer Institute to the traditional list of Cambridge, Paris, Heidelberg and Strasbourg” (Science 1989 Vol. 243 pp470-471). Over the next decades, IMBB has grown to become the most prominent biomedical research institution in Greece, with an outstanding record of scientific achievements, a modern infrastructure, and a broad range of research and educational activities.
Transforming the Greek biomedical research landscape
The establishment and operation of IMBB back in the mid 80’s had a 'game-changing' effect in Greek biomedical science. Breaking the rules of the previous hierarchical system, IMBB introduced a new philosophy adopted from top international research establishments (eg., Harvard, MIT or EMBL). This philosophy was characterized by academic freedom, a merit-based recruitment strategy, organizational and management structures focused solely on creating an optimal environment for performing top quality research, and by putting the scientific quality standards high – to the level of the top-performing international centers. The visionary objectives of our founder have also revolutionized postgraduate biomedical education in Greece by introducing modern educational practices, such as rotations, qualifying exams, follow-up mentoring and training in complementary skills. Over the years, IMBB has earned the reputation of a 'producer' of excellent PhDs.
In addition, IMBB had a pioneering role in developing an efficient model for cooperation with the University of Crete, which had a transformational impact on the scientific ecosystem of Greece. Regular evaluation of the scientific performance by an independent, international Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC-IMBB) was another important practice which helped IMBB to develop as a Center of Scientific Excellence. These characteristics set a strong and long-lasting basis for pursuing our mission.
My term as Director of the Institute started in the summer of 2017, a period of exit from a decade-long economic crisis in Greece. The crisis resulted in a huge reduction of Governmental funding and the introduction of devastating bureaucratic measures enforced by the “Troika” – the European crisis and loan-management group. Despite the difficult conditions, overall funding of IMBB actually increased during this period, owing to the success of its faculty in securing competitive funds. Thanks to the efforts of individual researchers and my predecessor Nektarios Tavernarakis’ policies, IMBB’s research infrastructure was also renewed and the scientific output and quality of the Institute continued to be remarkable.
In my view, the key factor for the success in navigating through hard periods was the strong adherence to the basic principles that were set at the beginning of IMBB’s foundation. These include, as noted above, academic freedom, regular evaluation of scientific performance, and the recruitment policy with the sole criterion scientific excellence.
Addressing new challenges: “standing on the shoulders of giants” and see farther
My initial ambition to preserve IMBB’s scientific quality and moving it into new heights has been encouraged by the existing spirit and creative atmosphere that was built on the rich legacy Dr Kafatos left behind. In the new era, however, policy-makers place application and innovation-oriented research as a main priority, often at the expense of supporting curiosity-driven research. Therefore, our Institute, a strong advocate of the latter, had to rethink its operational strategy to maintain scientific excellence and adjust to new realities and challenges.
Justifying Isaac Newton’s phrase in the caption of this section, another 'giant' and long-time supporter of Greek science, Harvard Professor Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas, entered our Institute’s life providing critical support to our efforts to move IMBB forward. Dr Artavanis-Tsakonas, as a Chairperson of the new IMBB-SAC, has organized an evaluation team composed of top-notch, highly recognized scientists, in keeping with the tradition set by our founder Dr Kafatos. In addition, he and his team, apart from evaluating IMBB’s performance triennially, also stood next to me and our researchers providing advice whenever was needed. His emblematical and motivating personality helped us to reinforce our view of excellent science, through which IMBB’s dynamic operational model continues to represent an example to follow.
IMBB research output over the past three decades provides a good argument that pursuing scientific excellence in Greece at the level similar to that of major European research centers is a valid and realistic goal. It signals a forward-looking and bold approach to catch up with the best, instead of compromising scientific standards on the basis of 'ill-defined realistic' – I would call 'convenient' – goals, often set in economically less-developed regions. In this regard, IMBB’s flagship role in Greek biomedical science is based on our belief that, as Dr Artavanis-Tsakonas has put it, “there is no science for Greece, there is only good science or bad science”.
IMBB from the beginning of its foundation had numerous research directions covering several fields of molecular biology including, protein structure-function, gene regulation, epigenetics and chromatin, cellular and developmental biology, neurosciences, infections and immunity, vector biology, plant molecular biology, and translational research, as well as specific areas of applied biotechnology research. Within this set up, IMBB is in a position to connect broad areas of biology, “from studying molecules to understand cells and organisms”. Expanding this strategy to disease mechanisms and connecting it with efforts to develop new methodologies, technologies, and devices, or to apply various technological platforms in an integrative manner, was a major and challenging goal. To this end, an extensive renewal of the faculty was achieved during the past years and we introduced translational research, protein dynamics and population genomics as new directions. Coupled with new researcher-friendly financial support policies and extensive mentoring of young investigators, IMBB has become an attractive place to explore risky creative ideas.
We are aware for the need and the impact of innovation-oriented research and we know that current national and international funding policies impose a great pressure for switching to such directions. We are also convinced, however, that successful production of both primary knowledge and applications can only be maintained by remembering “there is no applied science if there is no science to apply” and – following the principle of strengthen what is already strong – we have put more emphasis on basic research and on studies of basic disease mechanisms. We therefore set the strategy to support existing excellence in cell and developmental biology, neurosciences, gene regulation and plant biology fields with careful expansion in related and rapidly evolving research areas that emerged following the initial explosion of new knowledge in the genomics and the systems biology era. The transition of IMBB-FORTH towards this approach, which will integrate components of the biological systems that interact functionally over space and time, has been considered feasible given the strong background of most existing and newly established groups in studying a variety of biological pathways across different cell types and tissues in different model organisms. Such efforts have already accumulated a tremendous wealth of new post-genomic information. According to our vision, the parallel activities, which were based on 'reductionist' approaches aiming at the elucidation of the function of molecular machines, had to continue. The excess information derived from structural and functional genomics could be integrated into cellular and organismal context, which would accelerate the comprehension of more complex biological functions. A prerequisite for the transition to integrative studies is the use of multidisciplinary approaches, especially the application of novel high resolution bioimaging and computational biology tools, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence tools in order to decode the information provided by big data and better understand biological systems.
The fact that IMBB-FORTH laboratories are located under 'one roof' with three other Institutes of FORTH, allows day-to-day interactions with physicists, computational scientists, mathematicians, material scientists and experts in imaging applications. This setup offers multiple benefits, especially for projects requiring cutting edge bioimaging technologies and for developing computational pipelines based on AI.
On the path of becoming a premier biomedical research Institute. An outlook for the future
Throughout our history, IMBB-FORTH Researchers were striving to perform frontier research matching the excellence standards of leading European centers. In 2020 we joined EU-LIFE, an alliance of 15 leading research centers in the life sciences. Together with the other EU-LIFE Institutes we share the view that “scientific excellence in life sciences can only be achieved through strong adherence to principles of quality, scientific integrity, ethical responsibility, societal accountability, ecological sustainability, gender equality and cultural diversity while promoting a strong dialogue with society”. EU-LIFE provides a stimulating environment for excellence in research through sharing experience and expertise in all kinds of organizational, management and scientific matters. EU-LIFE partnership and the collaborative spirit of its members, with genuine intentions to help, had already a major impact on IMBB’s everyday life especially in improving IMBB’s practices towards achieving an inclusive, diverse and equitable environment and to operate with the highest standards of scientific integrity and transparency in research, as well as to employ advanced data management and GDPR practices. We have also improved our science communication, technology transfer and training activities and enriched the core facilities with new high-quality services and organizational schemes.
Without any doubt, the above features, which stand on the basic pillars of academic freedom, scientific excellence, collaborative spirit, accountable and responsible research practices, have amplifying effects that make IMBB an exciting place to pursue creative ideas and perform frontier research. Based on the dynamics of IMBB throughout its history, it is needless to say that I anticipate an even brighter future for our Institute.
Images by IMBB-FORTH